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Romancing the drone: Demand takes off in South Florida

A tower inspection in progress by OpenSky Drones of Coral Springs.
A tower inspection in progress by OpenSky Drones of Coral Springs. Photo courtesy of OpenSky Drones

Step inside Animusoft’s Kendall offices, and you’ll see drones everywhere — large ones, little ones, drones that inspect, drones that pick fruit, and a few just for fun. Some are half-built; 3D printers are working 24/7 to create new parts.

You might think this is a drone manufacturer, but you’d be wrong. Animusoft is a Miami startup technology company creating an operating system for drone and robot makers. Think Android for robotics — a software platform designed to unify drone and robotic hardware while alleviating security and public safety concerns. Its offices are a giant laboratory: Team members build the drones to test their operating system, which has just entered the beta-testing phase with 16 vetted companies as its first customers. The new product, called Alive, will be unveiled this week during the eMerge Americas conference at the Miami Beach Convention Center.

And there are other young companies in this wild, wild west of drones, from Kendall to Coral Springs. OpenSky Drones — one of several local drone-borne commercial services — is preparing for the day it can offer a host of drone services legally to survey construction sites, visually inspect roofs and collect data from fire-rescue or crime scenes. Urban Drones made a splash with a waterproof drone on Kickstarter this spring, raising more than $300,000. (It’s now preparing for its first production run.)

Other drone makers also are setting up shop. Phillip Frost, the well-known healthcare entrepreneur, has invested in a Jacksonville drone manufacturer, Drone Aviation Corp., which recently opened an office in Miami-Dade. Scores of drone photographers hawk their services for everything from real-estate shoots to movie footage to weddings.

The Miami-Dade County Commission is exploring declaring the area around Miami Executive Airport a drone and robotics hub because there is already a nucleus of technologists working in the area and plenty of room over the Everglades for drones to roam. And Miami Dade College has a new drone curriculum in the works. (See related story.)

All this is happening when the FAA still heavily restricts how drones are used commercially. But scores of companies in South Florida are betting on the future of drones, anticipating a future with more relaxed rules.

“Everyone is into this romancing of the drone,” said Howard Melamed, who started OpenSky Drones last year to offer tower inspections and other engineering services. “Right now, everyone thinks they can get into it.”

Nationally, there’s an insatiable appetite, it seems, for all things drone. Amazon isn’t the only big business investigating the use of “delivery drones” — the U.S. Postal Service is, too. In April, the Federal Aviation Administration approved several insurers, including State Farm, to use drones to assess property damage. The American Red Cross commissioned a yearlong study, which resulted in the humanitarian organization calling drones one of the most promising new technologies for disaster response and relief, and drones have already been put to work in the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake. There were so many drones on display at the American Association of Broadcasters conference in Las Vegas last month that a tech columnist for Yahoo! called them “the new booth babes.”

Chinese drone maker DJI and California’s 3D Robotics recently released new easy-to-use consumer drones priced under $1,000 that are capable of commercial applications, and venture capitalists are jumping into the market with sizable bets. According to CB Insights data, 2014 investment in the nascent drone industry topped $108 million in 29 deals, doubling year-over-year. A bigger 2015 is expected: DJI is reportedly raising new funds at a $10 billion valuation from venture investors. Top-funded U.S.-based drone startups include the fast-growing Airware, 3D Robotics and SkyCatch, according to CB Insights.

Many entrepreneurs are chasing what could be an explosive market. Various forecasts by government and industry officials expect businesses to invest tens of billions of dollars in drones worldwide over the next 10 years, as the tech takes root in industries that now rely on helicopters, small planes or ground operations for activities such as pipeline inspections and aerial photography. At the same time, drone sales are flying high: According to Consumer Electronic Association research, the global market for private drones will approach $130 million in revenue in 2015, increasing by 55 percent from 2014. In just five years, sales are expected to top $1 billion.

“You are dealing with what has been valued as an $82 billion industry over the next 10 years that could create 100,000 new jobs in America alone. When you look at that, you see a lot of opportunity” — but without defined rules about what entrepreneurs can and cannot do, said Matthew Grosack, a Miami-based attorney with DLA Piper law firm, referring to a forecast by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. “What you are seeing is a lot of people out there taking the risk and just going for it.”

He’s referring to the regulation limbo land. For now, commercial drone operation is largely prohibited, but under Congressional mandate, the FAA in February issued draft regulations. The public comment period has just ended. While awaiting final FAA rules to be issued, some states including Florida are jumping into the fray, seeking to set their own laws.

Under the FAA’s draft rules, private commercial drones must be less than 55 pounds, can’t fly higher than 500 feet, can only fly during daylight, and — more controversially — must remain in the “line of sight” of the operator. The last stipulation stifles delivery drones, for example. Drone operators will be regularly required to pass written tests that will only be administered in person and to obtain clearance from the Transportation Security Administration. (Hobbyist drone flights are permitted, as long as they fly below 400 feet and away from airports.)

In the meantime, U.S. commercial drone operators can apply for an exemption from the FAA. While they wait, some are providing drone services for free. Others are just winging it.

“We are probably looking at 2017 at the earliest for what is going to be a real defined set of federal laws on the commercial use of drones. Between now and then, we are in this gray area,” Grosack said. “What a lot of entrepreneurs are doing is A: taking the risk because the skies are not really being policed ... or B: taking their operations abroad to places like Canada or the United Kingdom. Certainly you want all this innovation to happen in the U.S., but the FAA is catching up with this industry. Companies have to take the risk or protect themselves by innovating, experimenting and commercially using drones abroad.”

OpenSky of Coral Springs is doing business offshore, as well as offering some services free while waiting for its FAA exemption — something Melamed hopes to get in the next few weeks. “If you want to be a hobbyist, you should be able to do so,” he said. “But if you want to do it commercially, you’ve got to play by the rules, have insurance and be a responsible company.”

The year-old company, with eight employees including four drone pilots, buys hobbyist drones ranging from about $1,200 to $5,000 and then strengthens and customizes them for its services. Melamed, who has a civil engineering background and owns a second related business called CellAntenna, rattles off a list of services its drones could perform: tower inspections, research and inspections for gas leaks using thermal imagery, traffic studies, parking lot inspections, bridge inspections, roof checks, surface inspections for condos ...

“We can fly these in wind speeds where the FAA doesn’t allow helicopter takeoff, so imagine the uses in disaster relief and search and rescue,” Melamed said. “Instead of sending a crew to downed power lines, which is dangerous, our drone can go up to five miles.”

Melamed said he’s hiring drone pilots to work in other parts of the country. So far, OpenSky has done some video work in the Bahamas, and its “no charge” work in the U.S. has included tower inspections, gas tank inspections and two traffic studies, one in Louisiana and one in Miami. “Bar mitzvahs and weddings? We don’t do that; that’s for the kids,” Melamed said.

Trevor Duke, who owns Icarus Aerials of Fort Lauderdale, started out using drones about a year ago for marketing real estate but quickly saw a saturated market: “It’s pretty easy for someone to go to the store and buy a halfway decent drone and get halfway decent pictures.”

His company is now focused on providing drone mapping: “We want to have the data so that builders, construction guys, developers need us rather than just for marketing purposes. We say to them we can streamline your work flow, we are going to get better information than anyone else can, and the drones can do that.”

Duke is also a drone pilot for the California-based SkyCatch, which is putting drones to work to automate processes at construction sites around the world; people program the machines and push a button to send them to work. At Miami’s Smart City Startups conference in April, he discussed how drones can be used in all phases of construction, from site selection, to providing 3D progress maps to even using the tech to make 3D-printed replicas of the projects.

For example, in site selection, “In a day, we can fly those five sites and get very high-resolution maps; you can see a can of Coke on the ground. And SkyCatch has great markup tools. It’s a quick way to see the situation, mark it up and share it with their team.”

Duke, who moved to South Florida from Michigan last year, used the 3D Robotics X8 (a drone with 8 propellers and a modified GoPro) as he demonstrated the drone at work at the conference. “The autopilot on the drone knows where it is, interfaces with the smartphone, interfaces with the camera, and it secures the data to make models — it’s completely automated and doing its thing.”

Added Duke, “Witnessing such a huge boom in Miami, this is where we want to be. We are pretty happy to be in the thick of it.”

Miami is an ideal market for Alex Rodriguez, too. But his drones aren’t built for business: They are run for fun. His Broward-based startup, Urban Robotics, developed a waterproof drone for boaters and water-sports enthusiasts and turned to Kickstarter, the world’s most popular crowd-funding platform, to test response. Hoping to raise $17,500 to fund his first production run, he raised $303,000 from 315 backers, including scores of boat owners and kite surfers, Rodriguez said. The experience netted him hundreds of comments with suggestions and requests for added features and accessories, and a Version Two is already in the works. But first, there’s a big Kickstarter order to fill on the Splash Drones, which range from $1,099 and $1,599 on the Urban Drones website.

Rodriguez’s market for the Splash Drone is hobbyists, so he’s not affected by the FAA regulation limbo land. Still, he thinks the rules will all be figured out over time: “It’s a whole new, exciting industry that isn’t going away.”

Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg

Tech takes the spotlight at eMerge Americas

The latest in drones and robotics, along with many other technologies, will be on display and part of the conversations at the eMerge Americas conference at Miami Beach Convention Center on Monday and Tuesday.

The conference will feature four stages of keynote speakers and panel discussions, with a focus on technology for healthcare, the entertainment industry, education, financial services, as well as ecosystem-building and smart cities. There will also be a WIT (Women, Innovation & Technology) Summit, a Startup Showcase featuring 125 startups, a hiring fair, parties, pitch contests, a fashion show and plenty of demos of the latest technologies.

More information and tickets: emergeamericas.org

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